CReSIS sends participants to climate change communication workshop in France

News

Summer 2010

Shore

In 2009, exposed errors of glacial melting rates published in IPCC documents and illegally acquired e-mails written by climate scientists at the University of East Anglia severely crippled efforts to improve climate change coverage in the media. Worldwide, such events drastically affected people's concern for the environment and belief in climate change as a whole. As of October 2009, only 57% of United States citizens believed that scientific evidence supported a warming trend, and as few as 36% thought that this warming was caused by human activity. Just two years before, as many as 77% of Americans believed that the temperature of the atmosphere was measurably rising.

On the political front, efforts to pass a climate bill fizzled in the Senate this past July, succumbing to partisan barriers too great to hurdle. The bill would have increased oil company liability limits and allowed for small incentives to raise production of natural gas and increase energy efficiency at the household level. Already a compromise on the original effort to institute a comprehensive cap-and-trade system, the bill has been put indefinitely on hold.

Meanwhile, 2010 is set to be the warmest year on record. The Federal Climate Service reported in July that January through June of 2010 represent the hottest months recorded since 1880. The average for June alone was 61.1 degrees F, a full 1.22 degrees F above the average for the 20th Century.

Life as a climatologist these days is certainly not easy. A single piece of misinformation sent rapid-fire across cyberspace is becoming a climate scientist's biggest nightmare, as politicians, self-educated bloggers, and scientists themselves trip over explicating the complexities of the changing Earth to people with varying knowledge of the subject.

The Network for Ice Sheet and Climate Evolution Research Training Network (NICE) framed its third annual workshop around the issue of climate change communication. The Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets sent two students and one staff member to participate; Theresa Stumpf (PhD student in Electrical Engineering); Ashley Thompson (MA student in Anthropology); and Jenna Collins (program assistant). The conference was entitled "Climate change: Improving our communication about climate change science, impacts, costs and adaptation."

NICE is a Marie Curie Research and Training Network (RTN) whose overarching research goal is to more reliably predict climate evolution over the next several centuries. Alongside that goal is the hope that the Consortium will discover the causes of the changes and address crucial uncertainties.

NICE

Twelve speakers from varying educational and cultural backgrounds and 38 participants convened from May 30 to June 6 just outside the seaside community of Giens, France. The NICE Spring School's aims were to 1) explore how climate change is presented in the media around the globe, 2) examine how to make scientific results better understood by a general audience, 3) review adaptation approaches, and 4) outline the economic consequences of climate change mitigation strategies. The NICE school was infused with an international flavor, with participants from all over Europe and candid discussions about current and potential scenarios in China, Italy, Nigers, Denmark, the U.S., and the nearby Languedoc-Rousillon region. Seasoned science journalists, economists, sociologists, climate modelers, glaciologists, and students shared viewpoints and suggestions on how to more effectively communicate the complexities of climate change.

During the NICE school, scientists in the room frequently exclaimed that oversimplifying their research and data for the sake of talking with journalists flattened its importance. Since when is expertise and technical jargon so frowned upon? Journalists fired back that it is their responsibility, having been placed in a unique position of power, to communicate to the general public and keep them informed. Time constraints, pressure to publish in prestigious academic journals, and lack of experience prevent scientists from reaching out to the media and lay audiences. Journalists, too, feel pressure to find an article that will entice the most readership in an increasingly condensed timeframe, due to economic hardships that have hit media industries and companies especially hard. The unique, if tense, relationship between reporters and scientists is becoming further complicated in the age of social media, as the line between the expert and the self-educated is blurred. Unfortunately, the Internet compounds the already delicate and difficult-to-maneuver world of science communication.

The NICE Spring School brought into sharp focus the marked difference in communication style exhibited by the journalists and the scientists in attendance. Of course, this difference is perfectly understandable. Their backgrounds and goals differ significantly, as does their place in the grand media hierarchy and their level of control over just what the public hears. And yet, this is where the fierce debate begins: the transition of words from the mouth of the scientist to the pen of the journalist. In an ideal world, climate researchers could take courses in journalism to learn just exactly how to bundle their hours of work into convenient, relatable sound bites. And in this communication utopia, where the researcher failed, the journalist could step in and translate, clarify, and condense. But this is far from being reality.

The reporter-researcher interface is where it all begins. A successful interview depends upon the writer's scientific competence and the scientist's ability to whittle down years of research into simple and succinct sentences. Andrew Revkin, environmental journalist and New York Times reporter, blogged about his recent contribution to the Ecological Society of America journal, on the subject of climate change issues in the media:

"Specialized journalists now occupy a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation of science."

Writers who do boast a scientific background typically prefer to seek work at specialty publications, such as Scientific American or even National Geographic, which attract a readership already well-informed on the issue of climate science. In other words, they're preaching to the choir.

Debate

Debates also swirled on how, exactly, climate scientists should navigate the science/public boundary. Some speakers warned against participating in values debates, while others seemed to suggest that scientists shouldn’t hesitate to integrate socio-economic impacts into their roles of informing.

So often, we get caught up in the problems that beset the United States with regards to climate change communication. Our media demands non-biased, equally represented coverage, thus often granting climate change deniers equal page space alongside renowned scientists in the field. The government has been slow to adjust to overwhelming evidence that continuing down the same path spells disaster on many fronts. Other more touchy issues, such as religion, complicate the United States' efforts to improve climate change communication. On the local level, CReSIS coverage in the local Lawrence Journal-World or Kansas City Star newspapers often leads to heated online debates by readers and commenters over the veracity of the Center's research. But as Theresa, Jenna and I learned, these issues are certainly not unique to the U.S.

Just as climate change research is an international collaboration of expert specialization that addresses the issue through systems of different strengths, perhaps improving the relationship between scientists and journalists, and thus, the consumers of science news, can be better achieved through an international effort that fuses different cultural perspectives. But perhaps in part it all boils down to human nature -- we want to feel invincible, and we don't want to worry about tomorrow when today's problems may overwhelm.

King Louis XV's words, "Après moi, le déluge" seems a fitting expression to sum up a key barrier to communicating climate change science to the general public. The phrase (translated into English as "After me, the flood") epitomises an attitude devoid of any sense of responsibility or thought for the future of the planet. Overcoming this barrier is paramount.

In the coming year, we aim to apply lessons learned in Giens to helping CReSIS researchers improve relations with the media, politicians, and the general public. Scientists of our time must increase and improve interaction with those outside their niche, they must loosen their grasp on comfortable jargon, and they must do all of this with the appreciation that to be a scientist in this day and age means wearing many a hat.

Below are key points that we found to be the most pertinent for CReSIS members. We welcome any feedback or suggestions.

Sea Level Rise

 

  • Uncertainty should be handled scientifically - science first, then policy
  • Adaptive strategy process: use local knowledge and focus on a bottom-up strategy - not top-down
  • Must reduce emissions! Green technology is not as far-fetched or costly as people think

 

Working with the Media

 

  • Professional denialism must be fought, but civic skeptcism must be made useful
  • Scientists and journalists must work (and train) together
  • Use stories and emotions to reach people

 

How to talk to journalists:

 

  • Stick to the science
  • Stay in your field
  • Use accessible language
  • Be brief

 

Working with politicians

 

  • IPCC is "policy-relevant, not policy-prescriptive"
  • We must work on the emergence of a consensus (scientific and ethic)
  • We should focus on team reasoning with negotiation power (negotiation between clusters)